What happens to pilots involved in mishaps? Do they get rewarded for saving a plane from disaster? And what of surviving pilots deemed at fault for something? What happens to their careers?

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Commendations typically come in the form of flattering letters from your bosses, handshakes at a banquet, and maybe a plaque. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the industry’s largest pilots union, gives out awards each year for outstanding airmanship. Not that there’s anything wrong with a nice shiny plaque and a free buffet, to say nothing of the personal and professional satisfaction that comes from having performed well under pressure, but no, you don’t get a promotion or extra pay. You might earn some congratulatory time off, but nothing, not even saving the lives of hundreds of people, trumps the seniority system.

It’s the other kind of time off a pilot hopes to avoid. Minor infractions that do not cause damage or injury—accidental deviations from a clearance, for instance—rarely result in a harsh penalty, but in cases of serious negligence the sanctions range from mandatory remedial training to suspension to being fired.

FAA “certificate action” is independent of punishment levied by the airline. The agency issues letters of warning or correction—pilots call these “violations”—or your license can be suspended or revoked. You might get to keep your existing job, but any administrative action on a pilot’s record can be a huge, even fatal hindrance if seeking employment later on.

In the United States, airlines and the FAA have partnered in a program called the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), which permits crews to self-report small-scale deviations or inadvertent procedural breaches in exchange for immunity. ASAP protects pilots from punitive action and allows airline training departments and regulators to collect and monitor important data. Rather than looking to blame and punish somebody for every infraction, the idea is to spot unsafe trends and deal with them proactively. It’s a well-received program with benefits to all vested parties, including passengers, and the concept has spread to other industries, such as medicine and nuclear power.

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